Part 2 in a series

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Why Say “Makes Possible”?

I was going to call this section ‘The Benefits of Participatory Community Network Mapping’ – but there’s a risk of over-simplified over-promotion here. It serves no purpose for us to extol the benefits of participatory community network mapping as if a network map in & of itself creates those benefits automatically. Network maps are a necessary condition, but how much a community realizes those benefits depends on the processes used to produce and make use of them.

If I’m hiking through unknown rugged territory, over complex terrain with few paths, having a good map in my pack makes it possible for me to find my destination with a minimum of disaster and aimless wandering. But if I never learn to read that map, never pull it out, never work to orient my current position to the map & fail to frequently verify my assumptions about my direction – the map is useless. The map makes not getting lost possible, but it only works if I engage with it intelligently.

It’s the same here. The quality of the mapping process is all-important: WHAT we choose to map; WHOSE agenda that ‘what’ reflects; WHOSE language defines the underlying structure; WHO informs those choices and WHOM is going to benefit; HOW we make those choices — and the ongoing engagement: WHAT conversations we allow the maps to instigate; HOW we in turn represent salient outcomes of those conversations in the map; HOW we include the map in planning, decision-making, etc. going forward — those factors determine how much of the possible benefits a community can realize.

Maps are a TOOL, not a silver bullet. And the more inclusive and participatory the methodology is, the more benefit can be derived. So I prefer to refer to what mapping ‘makes possible’.

I don’t drive this home because I doubt the reader’s ability to understand. I stress it because I know from experience how easy it is (even when understanding) to allow a community’s enthusiasm to carry everyone off into unrealistic expectations. We need to affirm the excitement, while being serious about clarifying and preparing for the complexity of and effort required for the generative work needed.

So, Ok – off my soapbox & on to the benefits Aldo suggests are being made possible.


It’s true that WE must do the sensemaking work, but what Participatory Community Network Mapping provides is a powerful new set of tools and processes to support that work, starting with a new lens on the current reality of a system that we can’t get any other way.

[Participatory Community Network Mapping is] a core common sensemaking activity: Sensemaking of, for, and by the community. Which is not trivial – it requires balanced language, tools and processes.


Seeing the Bigger Picture & Grounding in Context

You’ve probably come across the parable of the blind men and the elephant (shown in the image below) many times in recent years. It’s a good metaphor for our differing mental maps, our various perspectives on ‘reality’, often used to illustrate why we need to include all the diverse stakeholders when addressing complex problems.


The thing we need to remember, relative to those different senses of the elephant is this – no-one learns anything new if we don’t contrast and discuss our different experiences. We must make-sense of the elephant together. And at the same time, if we discuss it once, return to our normal stances & don’t capture anything of what we learned from one another, the next bunch of blind men have to make sense of the whole elephant all over again. We might have changed our own minds a little, but done next to nothing to move the system.

To truly change the system, we have to let what we’ve learned change us, and we also have to feed that learning and those changes back into the system as a whole. Which is what a good network map can help with.

That’s another way of saying, as Aldo did in the first post, that a ‘map without conversations is nothing and conversations without some form of mapping are much more fragmented’.

System-Revealing and Insight-Sharing Conversations

Mapping is not a goal in itself. Maps help to set agendas for conversations between people and networks.


What comes out of these conversations, you can capture that in maps so that other people who are maybe engaged in a very different strand of that community or network conversation can build on that. So, maps do connect conversations.

What those conversations can reveal- and the maps can capture – are the dimensions of the collective reality that are beyond our own personal perspective. They help us see what’s relevant outside of our own time, place & private mental maps.

For instance, every good community-organizer/connector/network weaver has a private map in their own minds of who is interested in what, who has access to which resources, who needs what. But that mental map generally remains private. For anyone else to benefit from that information, the ‘Hub-type’ person has to be consulted directly, or has to personally intervene.  For that person to have to be personally instrumental in most flows of value through the network 1) becomes personally taxing, 2) creates bottlenecks, 3) creates disproportionate power and influence, and 4) if/when that person goes away, puts the network at risk. A good community network map can help EVERYONE navigate & mediate that larger collective reality, find overlaps, find gaps, find new ways to combine our insights, efforts, resources, influence & power.

What are the seeds for action that we can work on as a field, as a collective? Everybody’s involved in their own projects, that’s fine you need that. That’s where real things happen. Yet mapping allows you to see literally the pieces of common ground that have not been claimed yet or that might be created. So, it allows you to go beyond what’s already there. It allows you, also, to put projects into context. To see that a project is not a goal in itself but there’s a lot of projects around particular themes. Then there can be mass and capacity development. That’s really what you’re after. Then you can start to see whether can we do smart combinations of projects that help to create much more synergy between things.

These kinds of insights can re-orient projects, as well as help community members re-envision their own roles within a community.

[One map] helped community managers make the case that their job was to create a fabric, rather than organize all kinds of separate events. And then help that fabric become visible.

Feedback Loops & Shared Learning

Aldo is articulating, and using mapping to address, the need for change-makers to document, represent, highlight, share, and be guided by COLLECTIVE sensemaking – the sense that lies BEYOND individual/project-based learning & individual/project-based goals so that individuals and projects can align with, support and be supported by the larger field.

There’s often a lot of leakage because loops are not being closed. At that feedback loops level, that’s where a lot of things go wrong. So, if you could fix that, by creating more feedback loops also beyond the project level, then you would have to start looking more into system structure; system rules, the collaboration paradigm. And that has more to do with these bigger themes that you’ve been working on to address complex, even “wicked” problems.  

For a map to become a feedback loop it needs to be embedded in an iterative process of mapping, sensemaking, community building and monitoring – we’ll go into that more in another post. The point here is – we need to stop the leakage, and a well-used network map can become a powerful tool to support that process.

Finding a New Path Forward

We’ve used this mapping as part of a conference where people from all over the world came to see what they are working on, and should be working on..

Guided by the collective experience and collective sense-making, we can discover and create new openings, new patterns, new flows. Learning where there ALREADY IS energy, resources, power & influence (as well as where those things are missing) reveals stepping stones to our long term visions.

[Mapping] actually makes it possible to think beyond the current operation because that’s half of the problem. You are in your current day-to-day work, operations, it’s already complex enough. It’s hard to think beyond that and still get some grasp; especially in communities or networks where the governance is quite fuzzy. It’s very hard to set the signpost a bit further away and to actually go for the bigger, more strategic goals.


So, what mapping helps you do, it lets you see where is the energy, where is the current web of relationships? But, then, you can also contrast that with the goals that you want to move to. You can already see which may be kind of long-distance goals that still needs a lot of work but you can also see intermediate themes or topics that already have some activities and organizations and stakeholders and involvement around them and use them as stepping stones to get to your long-term more outcome-based goals.


I think it helps to actually, in that mess and mesh of day-to-day collaborative networks, it helps you to see the bigger picture, to both see the longer-term strategic direction you want to move into but also how you can get there without getting lost in chaos. It helps to see the fragments, see how they can be combined, and how they can be woven together into a collaborative fabric that gets you where you want to go.

Overcoming Fragmentation

Maps can help us accelerate & be intentional in finding where we can collaborate.

There’s many realities out there. But it’s not like everybody has his own reality and they’re all totally separate. That’s kind of the “alternative facts doctrine”, which does not do the world any good. We have common grounds. At least part of our reality is common, and that’s what we are discovering this way, by contrasting maps in use. So, let’s say an activity or a community has its own map and it starts to collaborate with another community. Rather than starting as often happens, oh, so. . . just by accident, are you working on that? Oh! We’re working on . . . So, the moment that they meet, they have some sense-making together, looking at their maps and seeing where the overlaps are. Ideally, if the maps have at least partially a common language – not the actual elements and connections, they’re owned by their community – but if the language of TYPES of elements and connections at least, to some extent, is shared then it becomes so much easier to see what they have in common.

The maps can show us how we ALREADY fit together.

The problem is their stories never reach another community, they never cross the boundary.


[In] this [one] case there were like dozens of initiatives and they all had overlaps but nobody saw the bigger picture. So, it’s kind of hard to see what are we as a movement. There was a lot of noise and there was a lot of activity at the “boots on the ground” level, so it’s often very hard to see what’s the direction of strategic development. And, basically, what I did there was nothing more than facilitating the creation of that bigger picture. It helped in providing ways of seeing – one thing that I really found very moving there was that people were thrilled to quite literally see themselves to be part of that movement; to be part of something bigger – the sum being a bigger thing than the parts.

Maximizing Time Spent Together

When people are coming together from a distance for rare face-time, it’s especially helpful for them to be able to identify who is coming from where & what they’re doing, as in this example:

The European union has a program of sustainable integrated urban development in cities across Europe, the idea being that these networked cities exchange lessons learned, best practices, on social innovation. There are dozens of city networks within the big multi-year program and one of these networks hired me to help them use their precious meeting time better.


  So, they had a meeting in Barcelona where eleven of these cities met, including cities like Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Gdansk. The idea was that at that meeting they’d find partners to go to for city visits to set up more in-depth learning exchanges. But, of course, you only have very little time you need to decide on who you talk to in those few hours that you have; how do you make the best educated guess as to which city to visit and collaborate with?


  So we created a map out of flagship projects prior to the meeting and we tagged them with the themes within the scope of this urban network. Then you clearly see how the projects of the cities interconnect around the themes they have in common. This is where you can gather. And it also helps the overall program management of that city network to see what’s the common ground, what’s the drift of their network. We are now weaving this approach into the methodology of that social innovation network. That should make it more than just a conference planner but actually to show, to help the network to make sense of itself on an ongoing basis.

Next Up:

Aldo de Moor

Aldo de Moor

In my next post Aldo thinks about the importance of language and storytelling in Participatory Community Network Mapping – how they can contribute to turning what’s possible into reality.

After that we’ll explore power, then process and finally, considerations related to participatory mapping.

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Ria Baeck
Ria Baeck
6 years ago

Soooooo gooood you are posting these!! I can't wait to read more! – and start using it here.

Peter Wolkowinski
Peter Wolkowinski
6 years ago

Aldo, really existing – I'm so much looking forward to our meeting together in Paris with Karl Richter, expert on impact measurement. We're in for a 7 mile step.


Mary Roscoe
6 years ago

Thank you — this is insightful and powerful!